While I do not personally agree with some of this priest’s statements (“The Church should always come first, even before one’s family”), this interview offers an otherwise intimate look at the life of the priest, and the Orthodox priesthood.
In recent months, Russian media outlets have given much attention to issues pertaining to the well-being of Orthodox clergy, their ability to make a living, and their obligations to their parishioners. One of the tasks of the Fund for Assistance to ROCOR is to provide assistance to clergy of the Church Abroad in material need. Priest Alexandre Antchoutine, a cleric of the Eastern American Diocese and rector of Holy Virgin Protection Church in Glen Cove, NY, shared his thoughts and experiences on some of the difficulties facing Eastern American Diocesan clergy today.
Fr. Alexander Antchoutine: When asked what seminary I attended, I often reply: “St. Alexei Academy,” because my spiritual father, instructor, and father-in-law was Fr. Alexei [Ohotin – ed.], who graduated seminary very long ago and has been a priest for 50 years; he has a great deal both of positive and negative experience working with people. It was at Fr. Alexei’s church of Annunciation in Flushing [New York – ed.] that I progressed through every stage of parish life, from the lowliest person in the parish – a janitor and laborer – to warden, and then later every level of the clergy: reader, subdeacon, deacon, priest. It was quite the schooling. But I do regret that I have no formal seminary education.
Fr. Alexei taught me much, and never hid the difficulties of a priest’s life from me. First and foremost we serve God and the people. This does not mean that people can ride the priests and make them run around and do whatever they say. As one church warden used to say to one priest, “I’ve wiped the floor with 16 priests, and you’ll be the 17th…” This certainly cannot be the case.
From whence comes the idea that the priest must fulfill every wish of his parishioners or warden?
If one looks at the Diaspora, at our Eastern American Diocese ‒ how were our parishes founded? We all came here in poverty and need. First and foremost, the people would buy land and organize a parish. Later they would appeal to the Church hierarchy to send their parish a priest. They built it all on their own dime; instead of buying themselves a car, these people would take their money to the church, or would buy icons in antiques stores. Every penny that was put into the church was brought from the heart; every penny was felt and for this we owe them our gratitude and praise.
Unfortunately, this is where some people got the idea that everything belongs to the parishioners, as opposed to the Church. From this idea stems the concept that this priest they sent us is our employee. If we don’t like Father, we’ll submit a complaint, and let them send us another.
Today we see much discussion regarding the financial standing of the clergy. Many feel it inappropriate for a priest to own an expensive watch or car, to wear nice clothes, and so on. There are others who feel that the priest and his family should live in outright poverty. Where does this line of thinking originate?
Some feel that if you were to give a priest a comfortable salary, then rather than concerning himself with the spiritual life of his parishioners, he would concern himself with his finances.
Certainly a priest should not be mammonish, but why should he live a shed? What’s wrong with a priest being able to dress nicely or buy himself a nice car or send his children to private school? In Glen Cove, where we live, it is impossible to send our children to public schools.* The schools there are not only bad, but dangerous, as well. Knowing well in advance that the children will not get a satisfactory education there, why should I send them there to suffer?
And some do call their priests to martyrdom:
“You see, Father, you chose this cross yourself; you’re a priest, so suffer for it!”
Why?! We are not all martyrs; you cannot place a heavy yoke on someone – this is a poor approach.
Father will care more for his parish if he doesn’t have to worry where to find the money for his family’s next meal.
Why does it bother people when a priest has a nice car or cell phone?
People see it like this: if you are a priest, you took a cross upon yourself to serve, to eschew wealth and acquisitiveness. Everyone scrutinizes what the priest does, although they rarely apply the same scrutiny to themselves. They can go on vacation five times a year, have summer houses and the like – that’s fine – but a priest can’t be allowed such things.
Of course, one mustn’t go overboard. St. John of Kronstadt – not that I am comparing today’s clergy with him, but – he rode in royal carriages and was greeted everywhere as a superstar. He had sumptuous robes and splendid horses. Fr. John looked like royalty. But that does not mean that he was acquisitive or wealth-seeking, quite the opposite. People donated these things to him, presented him with gifts from the heart. They gave him large sums of money, which he in turn would give to others, helping and feeding many. But even he didn’t walk around in tatters.
People will always look at a priest as someone traveling a totally different road than the laity. Once you’re a priest, you drive in a different lane. Though we in this lane are allowed this and the other thing, you are not. This is the current attitude of many toward the clergy.
Is there anything in the Church canons about avarice, some guidance for a priest?
What is written on the [priest’s – ed.] cross? “Be an example unto the faithful.” This means, chiefly, that the priest must be an example of cleanliness, piety, unselfishness. The priest must be an example to his parishioners in everything.
Nowhere is it written that a priest must live in squalor, walking around in rags, begging, and living in near-starvation; rather, it is written that a priest should be neither richer nor poorer than his average parishioner, so that their relationships won’t be poisoned by either greed or condescension.
What are the principal difficulties facing the average priest?
The principal difficulty facing our clergy is that we cannot be priests to the fullest. We have lay jobs which occupy much of our time. Why do our priests have to work? Because parishes cannot fully support them.
Part of the question lies in the fact that half of our parishes are small and cannot support their priests full time. The other, greater part, is the feeling that the priest is a hireling:
“Father is young, he can go and work. Why should we have to support him? We all work, why shouldn’t he?”
This, unfortunately, is the situation in the Church Abroad – I’ll speak only of the Eastern American Diocese, where the overwhelming majority of clergy have lay jobs.
Archbishop Mark [Archbishop of Berlin, Germany, and Great Britain – ed.] will not give his blessing to open a parish unless the proposed parish can give him a full financial reporting and demonstrate their ability to fully financially support their priest and make sure that he isn’t working a secular job, but caring for the spiritual well-being of his parishioners. This is the correct approach, and this also happens in some other dioceses.
According the Church canons, a priest is not allowed a lay job.
If one were to start reading the Apostolic Canons, he would immediately want to dig himself a grave, lie in it, and die, because he would realize that in our times it presents an unrealistic standard. But this doesn’t mean that we should forget about the cannons, or that we shouldn’t strive to make sure the parish can fully support its priest, so that he might devote all of his attention to church life.
A priest must be prepared to be awakened in the middle of the night and have to go and commune someone before he dies. But when Father has spent 12-14 hours at work and comes home bedraggled, and then has to serve treby, things get harder. Furthermore, if he wishes to serve a service, he needs to take time off of work, and if this happens regularly, then he often loses his lay job.
There’s no sense even talking about a vacation. If Matushka and I want to travel somewhere, the first question that arises is,
“Who will cover for me?”
I can’t miss more than one weekend. You have to choose carefully, so you don’t miss a feast day. It is nice when there is more than one priest in the parish, but 95% percent of our parishes consist of a single priest, on whom all of the responsibilities of church life are thrust. How can he even dream of taking time off? I work Monday through Friday, and my weekends are busiest of all.
On top of that, priests often go unpaid; not every parish can offer their priest a place to live, a car, medical insurance, or even enough money to get buy. Look at what the Greeks do: they provide a priest with housing, a car, a starting salary of 65,000 a year, life insurance and medical insurance.
What other difficulties do priests face in their lives?
A lack of understanding by others of what constitutes the duties of a priest. This attitude, that since we have a parish priest, he must be on call for me 24 hours a day, is also wrong. Every priest understands that, if something happens to someone and he receives that phone call, it is his duty to get up in the middle of the night and go to that ailing person, not coming up with excuses or claiming he can’t because he is lazy or “doesn’t want to.”
But there are those who cross the line. It is often the case that people will call and say,
“I want a panihida tonight.”
You know that I work – we couldn’t work this out earlier? It’s understandable if someone is dying or needs to be communed immediately – there’s no impugning that. But sometimes people refuse to think ahead even in the slightest. They think that, since I need this now, Father has to jump up and do it right now. But there are times when a priest isn’t feeling well, or his children are sick, or he is still at work; and the people get upset. And right away the priest has to apologize and explain himself. But why didn’t you think about this earlier?
So it turns out that a priest has a million bosses?
Yes, it’s often exactly like that. A million bosses, all of whom make decisions on the priest’s behalf. Thank God, I was never in a situation where someone made demands of me. But one priest told me about how, when he would be serving proskomedia on Sunday mornings, the warden liked coming into the altar, tapping him on the shoulder, and saying, “Don’t forget, I’m in charge here. I could have you tossed out in no time flat.”
I haven’t had anything like that; my skin hasn’t had to grow thick dealing with nonsense like that. My first parish, where I became rector, and where I serve to this day, is the Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin in Glen Cove. My parishioners there are wonderful, they help me a great deal, and they accepted me as a priest, not as the Sasha Antchoutine they once knew [before his ordination – ed.], but namely as their new rector, whom they must obey in certain circumstances, and helped me as a young priest.
It’s not unusual for me to hear that someone is unhappy with something; let’s talk this out and see how we can solve the problem. I have yet to butt up against commands from my parishioners. It’s not uncommon for people to complain, especially older parishioners who feel the service is too long. But let’s take the All-Night Vigil, for instance – one can stand, pray, calm down, without having to rush anywhere. What often happens at the Vigil? No matter how long the Vigil lasts, three hours or one and a half, once the Gospel is read, after the Polyeleos, the people will come up and get anointed, take some blessed bread, and leave regardless.
What do people expect from their priest?
Some people think that Father will utter a single word and solve all of their problems, that Father is a wizard, who will take his magic wand and put everything in its place.
Others have totally appropriate expectations, that their priest will pray for them and love them; when necessary, he will help them with advice. They understand that Father knows what he is doing.
There is a certain class of person that will go to a priest for advice, you give them advice, and they don’t like your answer. And they start trying to squeeze what they want to hear out of you. If they don’t hear what they want – and sometimes a priest has to remain steadfast and show and explain to that person that what he is doing is wrong – then they get indignant. And God forbid you give anyone in the parish a penance! You will never see him again – he’ll run off to another priest.
What do people think a priest’s responsibilities are?
Many people know exactly what to expect from a priest. But, unfortunately, some think:”If something occurs, I can call the priest at any given moment with any given question. And I need to speak with him now, right now.” If you can’t make it to the phone, people get offended. They had some family blowup, and they need Father to come right this instant and clear it up. They expect the priest to come over, feed the children, tuck them in, change their diapers, and then sit down and tell everyone who is right and who is wrong. This often revolves around issues that the people have to resolve themselves. But they look at the priest like he’s a shrink on wheels.
What are a priest’s actual responsibilities?
To serve God. To serve as many services as he can with piety, worthiness, not abbreviating or skipping them without good reason.
His second principal responsibility is to maintain peace in the parish, not to take sides, not to play games, not to get involved in political factions in the parish, not to play parish politics, but to love all of his parishioners, the difficult along with the easy, from the infants to the elderly, who moan and complain often – to love them all for real and from the bottom of his heart. Those who praise him and those who tap him on the shoulder. And he must maintain the parish itself. He shouldn’t refuse anyone anything: people want to pray, let’s pray; they want treby served, why certainly. But he can’t do favors for people for the purpose of gratifying them, thinking: this one’s rich, I can do him a little extra favor. He has to treat everyone the same, with love, but also one-by-one, as with real individuals with their own special traits and spiritual sores. He shouldn’t pamper anyone unnecessarily.
He has a responsibility to scrutinize himself, observing what he says and does, not elevating himself above everyone else as though they don’t understand anything; not debasing himself, but striving to be an example for everyone – though not some kind of saint, not trying to prove that he knows better than everyone. Often people know better than you do, so you should listen to them – not to their guile, but to their opinions – and try to make something constructive of it.
I may not always help my Matushka… the Church should always come first, even before one’s own family. But sometimes Matushka has her own troubles and gets upset, and the priest needs to spend some quality time helping at home. This is also his responsibility. He cannot abandon his family. Sometimes you think: since the Lord has seen fit to have me care for His spiritual children over whom He has given me charge, this means He will care for my family. From a spiritual point of view, He does exactly that. But that doesn’t mean that you put off your responsibilities as a father and husband on God, using your total care for the parish as an excuse.
The priest must find a way to balance everything. Too many divine services and people begin to complain: we should curtail the number of services. But if the parish starts to fall apart, you have to add more services. If a person needs more prayer, assign him more – if a person needs to be put in his place when he starts to flounder spiritually beyond his own control – the priest can’t be afraid to do just that.
It seems as though priests have nothing but responsibilities. Are there any benefits?
A priest has one benefit: he must rejoice and thank God every day, that he was found worthy to become a priest, because we are all unworthy of the priesthood, especially in our time. Fr. Alexei just recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest. He said: “I thank God that He gave me the strength to be a priest for 50 years.”
All of these awards are silly. What difference does it make if your cross is silver or gold? I thank God that I have a cross, that He accepted me, a sinner, and enabled me to wear a cross around my neck and celebrate the Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mysteries. That is the greatest reward for me. For every priest, this should outweigh everything else. Nothing else even comes close.
A priest’s chief joy is that he is a priest, and he shouldn’t expect anything more – no awards, no elevation, no guile, just joy in the Lord granting us the priesthood, especially when we are unworthy of it.
* Up till now, the Antchoutine family have been home-schooling all their children till high school – editor’s note.
The interview was conducted by Alena Plavsic